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And the Oscar goes to . . .

Frederic Raphael reviews Mark Harris' latest book

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

Scenes from a Revolution Mark Harris

Canongate, pp.490, 20

The subtitle of this account of the genesis and fate of the five movies in competition for the title Best Film at the 1967 Academy Awards is ‘the birth of the New Hollywood’. Hyperbole being the most reliable trope known to publicity, we are promised that 1967 was ‘the year that changed film’ and that ‘… a fight that began as a contest for a few small patches of Hollywood turf ended as the first shot in a revolution’. The loud implication is that the time taken to make the announcement ‘And the Oscar goes to …’ were ten seconds that shook the world. Mark Harris believes that at least three of the movies were radical departures, in conception and style, from all that had gone before. His long, and often very interestingly detailed, history tells how, and under whose aegis, the contenders came to line up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where the Oscars were presented in the days before they were a prime-time attraction.

The great sleeper of 1967 was undoubtedly Bonnie and Clyde. It opened small, and achieved legendary success and status mainly because of Warren Beatty’s energy, charisma and never-take-no-for-an-answer chutzpah. ‘Whatever it takes’ being his motto, he went on his knees to Jack Warner to get the picture financed and clenched his fists at Elyot Hyman when, after his take-over of Warner’s, he threatened to bury it. Making a movie is one thing; getting it enthusiastically distributed and marketed is another battle entirely. Warren not only starred but also produced the story of the two Texan psychopaths who passed into myth as Depression Age Robin Hoods (banks were the baddies, which seems to excuse shooting their $10-a-week employees). David Newman and Robert Benton were, however, the project’s authors and prime movers.


Virgin screenwriters, admirers above all of the nouvelle vague (François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were among those who promised, for a minute or two, to direct the script), Newman and Benton wrote endless drafts until, exhausted but never disillusioned, they were somewhat gently bumped off the picture (but not the credits) by Bob Towne, who grew fat as first Warren’s and then Hollywood’s uber-rewrite man. In nouvelle vague-speak, Bonnie and Clyde was ‘un film de Arthur Penn’, but Warren produced in the hands-on bully-boy style of any old Warner brother: Penn was his employee as well as his director. As for Faye, with whom (we are told) Warren had no more carnal connection than did Clyde ‘I ain’t no lover-boy’ Barrow, she was never happy on the picture, nor much liked by those who were heartless enough to call her ‘Fadin’ Away’ or ‘Done Fade Away’. Faye had the last laugh, but not until she won the Oscar for Network, almost a decade later.

Bonnie and Clyde was brilliantly made, shot and edited, but how wrong was ‘Colonel’ Jack Warner in seeing it as a jumped-up B-movie? Pauline Kael, beginning her clamber to the top critical slot in the New Yorker, proclaimed it to be some kind of bloody metaphor for what was happening in the society in which H. Rap Brown called violence ‘as American as cherry pie’. Another of the contenders, in fact, put its toe much further into the fire of contemporary issues. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night featured a Southern sheriff and bigot, played by Rod Steiger, forced by circumstances to team up with Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs, a black policeman from the north who happens to be in Hicksville when a murder is committed. There was nothing traditional in the scene in which Poitier, slapped in the face by a local racist, slaps him right back. The distributors feared trouble in Dixie movie houses, and had a little, but they never reckoned on the surge of joy and (better!) customers among black Americans. The most poignant parts of this fat book deal with the career and near-tragedy of Poitier’s subsequent career. Cheered for what Mr Tibbs did, he was brutally abused for playing a neo-Uncle Tom (so black activists said) in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another of the movies in contention on Oscar night.

Designed with antique craftsmanship and craftiness as a vehicle in which Katharine Hepburn and the dying Spencer Tracy would take their last, well-sprung ride, it posed the age-old liberal-baiting question, ‘What would you do if your daughter wanted to marry a black man?’ Everyone knew that that curmudgeonly old sweetheart Spence and corncrake-voiced Kate would blow cold only to warm up later, especially since Poitier’s character was a Nobel contender and the best-looking guy in seven states. Poitier was not nominated for either of his performances. Rod Steiger paid a genuinely heartfelt tribute to his co-star when he took the statuette (suffering the Oscar curse, he himself did almost no worthwhile work thereafter).

The third innovatory movie in the quintet of contenders was Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Knowing nothing about it, we walked into a movie house in Chicago and were almost immediately doubled up with laughter at the freshness of the debutant Dustin Hoffman. Nichols had already directed his first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (surely one of the most over-rated texts of modern theatre), and had the nifty insolence of a boxer on whom no one had yet laid a critical glove. Who else could have cast an unknown Jewish dwarf (Bob Evans’ description, the dwarf-part, after Marathon Man) in the part of what Charles Webb’s novel depicted as an ur-Gentile jock? The Graduate made no big statement about capitalism or Vietnam or race or any of the things for which revolutionaries clench their fists. Nor, finally, did it win any prizes, unless cinematic immortality is a prize. A joke that stays funny is some classic: who will ever forget Benjamin banging his head carefully against the wall after putting his hand ineptly on Ann Bancroft’s breast? Harris says it was an improvised gesture of frustration, which Nichols had the smartness to incorporate in the next take.

The fifth movie up for ‘Best Film’, Doctor Dolittle, was not only never going to win, but would never have been nominated if it were not for the PR expertise of its producer, Arthur Jacobs, and the desperate lobbying of Dick Zanuck, head of production at Fox, who had okayed the multi-million dollar dog’s dinner, and giraffe’s breakfast. Dick Zanuck and his colleague David Brown survived, easily, to become the producer of Jaws and The Sting and what all else along the banks of the mainstream. I shall always be grateful to them, for having okayed a 1967 movie I wrote called Two for the Road. If only Stanley Donen had gone wildly over budget, we too might have been eligible to be exhumed by Nick Harris. As it is, if you don’t remember, you have probably guessed: In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture; Katie Hepburn won Best Actress and Bill Rose won Best Original Screenplay for the dullest, most old-fashioned screenplay in contention, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Mark Harris would have it that the movies changed utterly, and presumably for the better, since the birth of the New Hollywood. Think so?


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